The success of 2019’s “Knives Out” has ushered in a wave of whodunit projects featuring characters who are keenly aware of the genre’s rules and trends, from films like “See How They Run” to the series “Only Murders in the Building.” But in a way, that’s nothing unusual for the genre, at least in a historical sense. In fact, as Rian Johnson notes in a video where he breaks down his films for GQ, the legendary Agatha Christie was writing novels about people who know they’re in a whodunit story long before Johnson came onto the scene:
“I think there was a perception that with ‘Knives Out,’ it was like a deconstruction of the whodunit or the genre or something. For me, it’s very much not the case, because I’m such a huge Agatha Christie fan. That’s where all of this comes from, is my love of her books. And if you go back and actually look at what Agatha Christie was doing from the very, very start – if you want to call it deconstructing, she was deconstructing from the very beginning. She was taking the genre apart. Even the meta aspect of kind of characters being aware they’re in a detective story, that was there from the very, very start.”
Building on this, one could argue a big part of why Christie’s 1934 classic “Murder on the Orient Express” was such a hit right out the gate was that its still-shocking ending upended what readers had come to expect after Christie’s earlier Hercule Poirot books. Who’d have thought a genre that partially lives or dies on its ability to pull the rug out from under people’s feet would be so inherently self-reflexive? I kid, of course, but it’s less obvious than you might assume.